Page-Free Cities

Our weekly Discontents, 9/13/2021

Hello, I'm Alex Pareene, and I write a newsletter called The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter.

When I was preparing my newsletter for launch, I mainly worked on writing my first “real" piece” (post? letter?), about now-former governor of New York Andrew Cuomo (how wonderful it still feels to write those words) and what he would do with his newfound free time (use his remaining clout, fanbase, press sycophants, and [as I actually neglected to mention] campaign war chest to attempt to destroy New York Attorney General Letitia James and possibly Kathy Hochul, his successor as governor). I knew my first thing would have to be a more generic introduction to the newsletter itself, but I put off writing that, imagining I'd do something short and perfunctory. People know what to expect from me. "I'm not going to write a manifesto," I told Tommy, my editor.

"It ended up being a bit manifesto-y" I told Tommy when I actually sent him the draft. So feel free to read that introductory post for some of my thoughts on this faddish format, blogs sent to inboxes instead of RSS readers, that has attracted enough speculative investment to subsidize at least a year of my writing and the writing of some of my friends, former colleagues, and comrades--among others. The pitch for The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter is mainly that it will be about what I am thinking about, and as a newsletter author I am now spending more time thinking about newsletters.

I am also thinking about politics more generally, about transit and urbanism, about the media, and a bit about pop culture, and I expect to write about all of those things. (I am also still the co-host, with Laura Marsh, of The New Republic's podcast, The Politics of Everything, which you should also subscribe to and recommend to friends. I recommend our Havana Syndrome episode.)

As soon as I decided to do this with Substack, I knew I wanted to become a part of Discontents, not just because I admire so many of the contributors, but also because I have always needed some sense of a collective mission to actually spur me to get any work done. (Previous experiments in freelancing ended when I couldn't be bothered to do my taxes correctly, but there are non-financial reasons why I have preferred, for most of my career, to be on staff.) 

So I'm very glad Discontents exists, even if I'm a tad ambivalent about the form in which it does. I recently went back to Minneapolis, where I grew up, for the first time in a few years. The city has been through a lot since I was there last, but one small, sad thing that struck me was popping into a bar and seeing an empty newspaper rack in the entrance. It would've once been filled with copies of the City Pages (and, years earlier, the Twin Cities Reader). Minneapolis's last print alt-weekly was purchased by the city's major print newspaper, the Star-Tribune, in 2015. The newspaper’s management shuttered the alt-weekly in 2020, blaming the pandemic and its effect on nightlife advertising, but suspiciously similar stories played out in Baltimore, in 2017, and in San Francisco just this month. Those are three cities in desperate need of a thriving alternative media; lots of powerful people in those cities, including the sorts of local machers that own big city newspapers, will probably not mourn the loss of the alt-weeklies.

Those losses happened in the midst of great proliferation of alternative voices, of course. I am thrilled that people like Spencer or Libby now have national platforms to say important truths about the security state or our for-profit healthcare system--truths that were routinely censored in the mainstream American press for years. There is a tremendous amount of valuable and important work summarized below my little spiel here, which only impressed me more as I edited this letter before sending it to your inbox. That's vital, and recent events (and remembrances of events) at home and abroad make me grateful for this media environment compared to the one I remember from 20 years ago. At the same time, I am bereft that I can't walk into the C.C. Club and learn, for free, what terrible shit the Minneapolis Police Department or Northwest Airlines are up to in the course of trying to see out what movies are playing at the Lagoon next week.

Some independent journalists in the Twin Cities, mainly City Pages veterans, have started a new site, called Racket, that looks like a great project worthy of your support, if you live in the area. But it will also be dependent on your support much more directly than the old weekly paper was. Just as all of us Discontenteds are!

I am, at this point, essentially repeating various things I've written about before at length, but then again I am a newsletterer, and that is what you signed up for.

Here’s what everyone else has been up to this past week. If you’re not already a Discontents subscriber, please sign up today for our free mailing list and be sure you’ll never miss another issue.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

For years, each September 11th, former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would recount, on Twitter, in close to real time, the events from 7:59 am Eastern, Tuesday, 9/11/2001, until 6:54 pm. The thread, repeated over and over and over again through the 2010s, is 127 tweets in total and filled with images. The Thread Reader app estimates it takes 24 minute to read all the way through. It is roughly 5,000 words long.

Last year, I wrote about Fleischer’s kind of ritual of remembering, juxtaposing 2,977 dead against the pandemic's then-US death toll of 194,000. In year two of the pandemic, year 20 since 9/11, there are at least 670,00 people in the US dead from COVID-19, and at least 4,625,000 people dead worldwide. The wars the US launched after 9/11, the direct invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the air war on terror that expanded beyond any formal theater, have likely killed more than 900,000 people.

This year, Fleischer skipped the ritual. Perhaps it was the end of the U.S. ground war in Afghanistan that gave Fleischer pause. Perhaps it was the knowledge that his solemn ritual of repeating would be lost in the deluge of work about the anniversary. 

This week, I contributed to a trio of remembrances of sorts. For Logically’s editorial wing, I wrote “The War on Trust,” about how the imagined post-9/11 unity was a brief blip, and how failures at home and abroad have compounded American’s skepticism in the government's ability to meet crisis. Earlier, I joined This Machine Kills for a two-part on the Forever War Machine. In the first (publicly available) episode, I talk about the specific tools of war and the logics that go into them. For the second, a Patreon exclusive, we talk about how the Department of Defense built Silicon Valley, and is actively rebuilding it all the time.

I have no new newsletter reflection 9/11 at 20, but here’s what I said for 9/11 at 19, which I think holds up: “To relive 9/11 is to avoid re-litigating it.… If the dead are left to rest, then the wars carried on in their name must be seen clearly, as tragedies launched in pursuit of phantoms.”

Forever Wars

Spencer Ackerman

I made a song with Ted Leo. Ted fucking Leo wrote a song based on the themes of my book and I drummed on the track. This happened. Then I had a conversation with one of the best writers in comics, Saladin Ahmed. After that I began a reported series I’ve been working on since June to counterprogram the evil whitewash known as the Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. This is about the experience of Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan while United We Stood in persecuting its residents. The second installment, which is better by far than the first, will hit your inbox tomorrow. 

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

This weekend Bill Shaner reported for Hell World on an anti-incarceration march in Massachusetts organized by Families for Justice as Healing, among others, protesting the construction of a proposed $50 million women’s prison in the state. In April he reported on the (still ongoing) strike by nurses at Saint Vincent Medical Center.

“We know there’s no such thing as a ‘trauma-informed prison,’” Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated woman and the executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls said. “They want to paint the walls pink. They want to put in gardens. They want to increase the time that children spend in prison with their mothers, and we're like, ‘Hell no.’ First of all you're talking about our children. You're talking about the same families from the same communities. You're not talking about shifting and looking for people from Newton to lock up. And so you're not going to build a new prison for our daughters and our granddaughters to land in. And you're certainly not going to indoctrinate our children by allowing them to spend more time in a prison.” Read it here.

In Pembroke, Massachusetts, the town next to where I grew up and where much of my family and friends still live, school committee and town meetings have become contentious of late, most recently over the adoption of a largely toothless committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you’re wondering if people have started calling each other Nazis then you’re in luck, buddy, because of course they have. I spoke to one of the town’s Select Board members about what’s going on.

“Massachusetts is a blue state, but it’s also not as progressive as people like to think it is. It almost always goes Democrat, but we also almost always have a Republican governor. And for a state with a super majority of Democrats you’d think we’d be a little further down the line in terms of all the promises the Democrats like to make. Personally I don't think Massachusetts is as progressive as we claim to be.” Read it here.

I also did my own little “what I remember about 9/11” self indulgent piece over the weekend. Turns out I do not remember much.

“One of the most lingering and troubling remnants of 9/11 is that many of us still to this day think of it chiefly as a personal and insulting affront that violence could be delivered to us the Americans to whom violence is not supposed to be delivered. We’re supposed to be on the other end of the bargain. And then of course we were for the next twenty years.” Read it here.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

This week at The Flashpoint, I investigated transphobia at The Guardian, where an interview with Judith Butler was censored due to the gender theorist's comments about the ties between transphobes and the far-right. 

Current and former staffers talked to me for a second story on anti-trans ideology in the paper's U.K. newsroom. 

“The British editorial staff seem to be allowing transphobia to crop up even where it's not even relevant,” Jules Gleeson, author of the censored article, told me, adding that “it almost feels like transphobia is getting shoe-horned in for its own sake.”

Gleeson is not on staff at the paper, but her remarks reflect the consensus from the staffers I spoke to, all of whom needed anonymity due to non-disclosure agreements and fears of reprisal. Their accounts paint a picture of a newsroom dominated by transphobes who use a plethora of tactics, including using the company’s U.K. union, to insulate their bigotry from accountability, in order to maintain control over The Guardian’s editorial direction on gender.

Then, on Saturday, I drew attention to former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard's continuing rightward tilt. Gabbard spouted off on Islam on 9/11, casting the religion as an enemy in her latest appeal to her target audience of the far right.

This week, we'll finally go up with the masking in schools article, co-published with The Daily Poster, as well as an update about Naomi Wolf and the anti-vax movement. 

Sign up today to get these stories, and more, in your inbox.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

For a change of pace I’d like this week to mention American Prestige, the podcast I’m co-hosting with Daniel Bessner of the University of Washington. For our regular episode last week we were joined by Arizona State University’s Alexander Aviña for an in-depth discussion of Mexican history and the role of the U.S.-Mexico border in testing the tactics and tools of U.S. empire-building.

But given the occasion, what I really wanted to highlight was our 9/11 special episode. The show features our own recollections of That Day as well as extended interviews with veteran journalism Jim Lobe, on the history of neoconservatism and its seizure of the 9/11 attacks by neocons as a lever by which to implement their broader goals, and with Instick Media’s Laila Ujayli, on what it was like to grow up Muslim in an America reacting to the 9/11 attacks. We also spoke with Struggle Session’s Leslie Lee III about the culture of 9/11 for subscribers, but you can get a taste of that interview here. I also grappled with the significance of 9/11’s 20th anniversary for Foreign Exchanges.

Air Gordon pt. 2

Jeremy Gordon

My first newsletter in a few months was inspired by The White Lotus — ironic, because I completely forgot to mention it here. But amidst the insular discussion about whether the show was effective satire or a weak-willed form of liberal back-patting arose a thought that the show was, foremost, a show, because no form of media can ever truly account for what it’s like to be rich, no matter how well-reviewed it is within the critical apparatus. What do people really want from their serialized entertainment, given the limitations of the form? And so I ended up writing about Succession and Empire of Pain and Phil Mickelson and some other things, alongside a roundup of my recent work.


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

There are some immigration stories that get all the attention: the border, asylum, family separation, etc. Traditional media’s emphasis on flashiness and drama means that a lot of bureaucratic changes get overlooked—not because they lack significance, but because they don’t conjure up dramatic imagery the way crowded refugee camps that families being separated at the border do.

That’s probably why the ongoing lawsuit regarding the diversity visa lottery hasn’t garnered much public attention. Last year, the Trump administration issued a near-total ban on immigrant and non-immigrant visas, ostensibly to alleviate the “threat” foreign workers posed to Americans who had lost their jobs. The ban also applied to the diversity visa lottery, a literal lottery system designed to encourage immigration from countries with low rates of migration to the U.S.. Since there are only 50,000 diversity visas available each fiscal year—and unused visas don’t roll over—the Trump administration’s COVID-related visa ban was disastrous.

Last week’s edition of BORDER/LINES focused on the history of the diversity visa lottery (fun fact: it was created to help Irish and Italian immigrants) and the latest developments in the diversity visa lawsuit. A federal judge ordered the Biden administration to take good-faith efforts to process all lottery winners before the end of the fiscal year. The clock is ticking, since the fiscal year ends on September 30.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week we’re speaking to Adam Johnson of Citations Needed and The Column about the link between mainstream corporate media’s post-9/11 bloodlust and the unbelievable meltdown over the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan 20 years later. Also: conspiracy theories, the relentless “nobody wants to work anymore” narrative, and why pivoting to the right is such a lucrative grift.

We also celebrate our new reality series about activism getting picked up, and take a moment to pay respects to the brave neocons who keep America safe.

The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter

Alex Pareene

I read a TV Guide to uncover some lost truths about a more innocent United States (and also to figure out which shows I remembered).